Ruddock lights fire in Dragons 'rejects'

Last Season there were nine, this season there are five. And next season? Four, if the Cardiff Blues fly in the face of organised opposition from their dangerously disenchanted supporters and merge with the Celtic Warriors. At this rate, Wales will be down to one club - Llanelli Scarlets, inevitably - well before the 2007 World Cup in France, and will have to invent three village super-teams to fulfil their European quota. Croesyceiliog-Ystradgynlais Druids? Nantyffyllon-Ynysddu Argonauts? Abercumboi-Llangennech Visigoths? They would fill the headlines, if not the stadia.

If regional rugby in Wales is working, it is a state secret. The Scarlets are going great guns, but with the obvious exception of the former Swansea centre Mark Taylor, the main body of their squad is strikingly similar to last year's, when they were plain old Llanelli. If the Blues are in a shocking state, on and off the field, the Neath-Swansea Ospreys are very nearly as compromised. The Warriors are a decent enough outfit, but their weekends are wholly undone by the things that happen in the boardroom between Monday morning and Friday afternoon. So much to endure, so little to enjoy.

Where is the saving grace, the shaft of light? Strange to relate, it can be found in Welsh rugby's very own heart of darkness. The Gwent Dragons - Newport by any other name, but do not utter the N-word for fear of arrest by the Thought Police - are third in the Celtic League, three points off the lead, and unbeaten at home in this, their first season. They have prevailed over some useful visitors - Munster and Edinburgh in the league, Ulster in the Heineken Cup - and are just beginning to find their feet away from Rodney Parade, having just beaten the Blues and the Borders at the Arms Park and Netherdale respectively. Not bad for a team of rejects.

Yes, rejects. Mike Ruddock uses the word, and he coaches them. "For want of a better term, that is what we are," said the former Swansea flanker, a front-line candidate to take over the national job when Steve Hansen returns to his native New Zealand after the Six Nations' Championship.

"When the regional system was put in place, we were deemed to be the weakest of the five teams. A number of our key players - people like Lee Jarvis, Craig Warlow and Jamie Ringer - had not been offered contracts elsewhere and looked in our direction. I'd worked with them in the past and felt they were capable performers, but other people did not share that view. They took one look at the squad we were putting together and thought 'forget it'. It seems we've exceeded expectations."

And yet. This afternoon, the Dragons welcome Stade Français to the Parade - a glamour fixture if ever there was one, the kind of game that might have attracted the best part of 12,000 spectators this time last year. Today's match may be watched by as few as 4,000. Ruddock is hoping for a 5,000 gate - "The quality of opposition demands it," he insisted - but is not holding his breath. The politics of the game in Wales, always red in tooth and claw, has been at its most destructive in Gwent, where the merger between Newport and Ebbw Vale was effectively swept away by a landslide of popular ill-feeling.

Ebbw Vale may have contributed half a dozen players to the current Heineken Cup squad, but to all intents and purposes, the link was severed almost before it was joined. This is effectively Newport, playing in Newport in front of Newport supporters. Unfortunately, half the Newport supporters prefer to watch the Newport club side, who call themselves Newport, rather than the Newport regional side, who call themselves something else. And those who do watch the Dragons tend to chant "Newport, Newport" whenever their team scores a try. It could only happen in Wales.

"It's a tough one to crack," admitted Ruddock, who, to confuse matters further, coached Ebbw Vale last season. (Last year's Newport coach, Leigh Jones, is one of Ruddock's assistants). "We've been getting crowds of 3,000-plus, sometimes 4,000, for our Celtic League and European games, but the club side gets 3,000-plus too. There are divided loyalties here, and it makes life very difficult in some ways. There isn't a lot of money going spare - we found ourselves in administration within a month of starting and I had to release half a dozen players I would far rather have kept - so we need all the support we can get.

"Most of us could see at least some of the problems coming - we are talking about a century of tribal conflict in the valleys and on the coastal plain - but the fact that there is so much in-fighting here, and that so much of it is done in public, is bound to impact on what is a business venture as well as a sporting concern. How do you go about securing sponsorship when there is so much uncertainty? I think now that the Welsh Rugby Union should have been more pro-active in its dealings with all the regions; there should have been WRU representatives on each board, to advise and arbitrate and reassure. But it's easy to talk with the benefit of hindsight. The most important thing to us is that we have come through a challenging time with a 100 per cent home record."

This afternoon's game could hardly offer a sharper contrast. Newport's most recent benefactor, Tony Brown, is still involved at Rodney Parade, but his input and influence are in diminuendo. There is precious little sign of Max Guazzini loosening his ties with Stade Français, however. The Parisians, bankrolled to the eyeballs by the flamboyant media magnate, bought big last summer - Agustin Pichot and the Bergamasco brothers, Mauro and Mirco, are world-class operators - and have identified this tournament as their season's priority.

"I don't think we are in a position to prioritise in that way," Ruddock admitted. "I can see where Stade are coming from, in that they have an obvious European pedigree and are looking to build on winning their domestic championship last season. We're building from scratch. We have fewer capped players in our squad than any of the other Welsh regions" - despite recent results, only four of the men on Ruddock's register made the 47-strong Welsh training squad announced on Wednesday - "and that tells you something about the base from which we started.

"It goes without saying that we want to do well in this tournament, but Europe cannot be the be-all and end-all for a team at our stage of development. First and foremost, I want us to qualify for next year's competition by showing up well in the Celtic League. If we can beat Stade, with all their big names and their almost complete absence of weaknesses, it will give us a tremendous lift, not least in terms of our public profile. But I'd be lying if I suggested that our bread-and-butter rugby was not uppermost in my mind at present."

Thanks in large part to Ruddock, the Dragons are winning enough physical battles to give themselves an even-money shot at a bright, prosperous future. But the physical will mean next to nothing if the hearts and minds of the local rugby community remain out of reach. A light of sorts is indeed shining on Rodney Parade, that beautifully ugly rugby chapel where Welsh voices once sang the praises of Bryn Meredith and Brian Price, Dai Watkins and Keith Jarrett. But it is a light dimmed by age-old prejudice and a fear of the new. The cold, clear light of day has yet to penetrate the darkest corner of Welsh rugby.

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